When Andy Weir first began publishing The Martian on his website, he had little inkling that it would become one of the year’s best-known, most celebrated science fiction novels, or a best-seller later adapted into a popular, Oscar-nominated thriller starring Matt Damon. Later this year, Weir will publish his long-awaited second novel, Artemis, a crime thriller set on the Moon.
Weir is a guest at San Diego Comic-Con this week, and I spoke with him about tackling the sky-high expectations of following up a blockbuster novel, realism in science fiction, and what makes him optimistic for the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Martian was a huge blockbuster success for you. How do you move on from that?
Yeah, that's a big issue for me. Of course I'm going to care about the next book, because I feel like I've done a good job, but we're now going to find out if I'm a one-hit wonder. It's pretty scary to follow up something like The Martian.
Has your approach to writing changed with Artemis?
A little bit, in that for The Martian, I was doing it as a serial, and I posted a chapter at a time to my website, and I could get feedback from the readers right on the spot. But for Artemis, it's more traditional. I had a publishing deal from day one. The feedback, I got from my editor, my agent, and some close friends and family members. I couldn't post it online for a few thousand readers.
Do you miss the feedback they provided?
I do. Especially the fact-checking. I miss that. When I had thousands of readers read each chapter, they would email me and tell me, “Oh, [you've] got this part of this chemistry wrong, or that part,” and I can go back and fix it.
In place of that crowdsourced fact-checking, what have you turned to?
Tons and tons of research. But Artemis is also less intensely focused on science than The Martian. It’s still every bit as accurate, but it’s less a central element.
What types of research are you doing for this new book? Given the popularity of The Martian, were you able to speak with scientists at NASA, for example?
I did, but I didn’t need that much contact from NASA, because the book is less about space travel, and more about things like welding, mineral reduction — how to make aluminum from lunar rocks, for example.
One of the big appeals of The Martian was that it was a real page-turner. How do you maintain that breathlessness?
It’s not prose so much as plot development. I ask myself a lot — you know when you’re in bed reading, and at some point you go, “I’m tired,” and put the book down? But if it’s an exciting part of the book, you’ll go, “Well, I’m going to finish this, and then I’ll put the book down and go to sleep.” My question is, when you’re writing the part where you’re going to sleep — why is that there? So I just don’t let them put it down, don’t let them stop reading.
What’s a part of the book that you’d describe as not put-downable?
Well, I’m hoping to make it all not put-downable. It’s just to have the plot advancing or a mystery unfolding, or some sort of character revelation. There’s always something interesting and compelling going on. The fastest way to make a reader put the book down forever is to just have page after page of exposition. Sometimes you have to, but I try and minimize it.
The Martian was praised for its high level of realism. What about making it as realistic as possible appeals to you?
Well, I’m a science dork, so I’m a fan of real science in science fiction. And I really flinch when I see blatant scientific inaccuracies, so I try and not have them in my stories. Now, it's one thing to have an inaccuracy. It's another thing to just have a device. For example, I love Star Trek, and I've got no problem with a warp drive. It's impossible in the real world, but I don't care. I accept that as a thing that exists in their world. But if you have a warp drive, I don't want to see it taking you a few hours to get from Earth to Mars. Consistency is the thing.
What’s an example of a story that’s made you cringe?
Well, there were a lot of things in Gravity. There’s a lot of science fiction that doesn’t pretend to be realistic. Few people look at The Force Awakens and say, “Let's analyze the science of this and make sure it’s accurate,” because that’s not the kind of story it was. Gravity was presented as an accurate portrayal of the International Space Station, shuttle flight, and all these other things. The inaccuracies in that stand out because it presented itself as a realistic film.
So why is this important to you?
The shocking revelation is that I actually don't think it's important. It's just that it is my approach to making plausible stories. My strength is scientific knowledge — that's what I'm good at. So that is the avenue by which I tell plausible stories. There are a million ways to make a good story, and this is just the one I've chosen. Take Star Wars: you don't have to have realistic science to have a fantastic story.
For a while in science fiction, there was a bit of a push against space travel in stories, but it seems to be back in a big way recently.
I love space travel and science fiction. I think what you find is, most science fiction seems to focus very, very heavily on either space travel or dystopian, miserable futures on Earth. It's difficult for me to think of a science fiction story that does not have space travel, and does not take place in a dystopian world.
The Martian was a very optimistic book.
I have a very optimistic view on the future. If you compare today to the past, I think you'd rather live today. I'd rather be in 2017 than in the 1970s or the 1870s or even the 1770s. I think if you ask someone from those years, they’d rather come and stay here. The quality of life for humankind just goes up and up and up consistently at all times. There are short dips where I think I'd rather be alive in 1933 than in 1943, especially if I'm a European. But I'd rather be alive in 1953 than 1933.
So what makes you optimistic for the future?
Technology always advances. Sometimes more slowly than at other times, but it always seems to have the knock-on effect of increasing the quality of life.
What types of stories influenced you growing up?
I grew up reading my dad's science fiction books that came out in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And so my big inspirations are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. I, Robot is one of my favorite books ever. I liked Farmer in the Sky by Heinlein, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the canonical city-on-the-Moon story. I’m afraid everyone is going to compare Artemis to it, which is too bad, because Mistress is one of the best science fiction novels ever made.
Do you worry about comparisons to The Martian as well?
Of course I'm worried about that, yeah. It's my second book, and everybody's going to be comparing it to The Martian, and it's likely that The Martian is going to be the most successful book I ever write. It had unprecedented levels of success for a first novel, and I'm fully aware of that. So I just had to set my sights to a reasonable level. I want people to like Artemis. I want them to say, “That's a good book.” If they also add, “It’s not as good as The Martian, but it's a good book,” I'll call that a win. I'm even waiting to start my next book until I see what the response to Artemis is, because I would love for this to be a series. I would like this to be my Discworld.
Artemis is due in stores on November 14th, 2017.